Call for smelter land transfer commitments to be honoured

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It is more than five years since the international metals and mining conglomerate, controlled by tycoon Sanjeev Gupta, entered into an agreement involving a community land transaction as part of the multi-million pound purchase of the Lochaber smelter.

As well as the smelter and several hydro schemes, the £330million deal in 2016 also saw GFG Alliance acquire around 125,000 acres of estate lands and in return for the Scottish Government’s pledge of financial support – nominally valued at an eye-watering £586m – GFG Alliance agreed to conclude a community land transaction.

But with the clocking ticking down to the six-year anniversary of the deal, there are now growing calls for the community land transaction agreement to be honoured.

So says John Hutchison, chairman of the East Lochaber Community Trust, speaking this week after criticism of the Scottish Government from a Morvern hydro scheme operator.

Last week the Lochaber Times reported comments from Hugh Raven, managing director at Ardtornish Hydro, in Morvern, slamming the Holyrood government in a row over the use of public funding.

Mr Raven claimed Ardtornish Hydro had been left in a ‘desperate financial state’ after being landed with a £500,000 pound tax bill and was forced to shed a fifth of its workforce last year.

And Mr Raven went on to state in a letter to Finance Secretary and local MSP Kate Forbes that the Scottish Government’s decision to underwrite the sale of Lochaber aluminium smelter to the tune of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash, proved the government was willing to ‘brush aside’ policy when it wished to intervene.

Mr Raven told Ms Forbes: ‘Your department ensured that the largest private estate to change hands in Scotland for decades remained in private ownership – over the heads of plans for a local community buyout.

‘In so doing, your department disregarded Scottish Government policy – to bring more land into community ownership – because ministers thought another outcome was more desirable.’

However, there has been no call on the government’s guarantee and the value of the security package it holds in relation to the smelter exceeds its financial exposure according to Treasury Green Book analysis prepared by independent advisers.

While Mr Hutchison believes Mr Raven’s statement conflates several government policies, he added that at the time the imperative to retain the smelter was linked to the ownership of the land and it need not have been.

‘The water rights are vested in the party that owns the major power stations so the GFG Alliance does not need to own the land to be able to generate power,’ Mr Hutchison explained to the Lochaber Times this week.

‘I agree with one crucial point, however, in that the Scottish Government is meant to be encouraging community land ownership and so they could still support us more proactively.

‘In return for financial guarantees linked with the uncertain condition of the tunnel, the GFG Alliance made a formal undertaking to conclude a land transaction in our favour and that is still outstanding.

‘Both the Scottish Government and the GFG Alliance could be pursuing that more firmly – we are entitled to expect a positive outcome here as parties need to honour their commitments.’

Quizzed over the perceived lack of engagement with local land campaigners, GFG Alliance this week declined to comment.